“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”John 1:1 (NRSV)
I couldn’t believe what I was reading, as I scrolled through the answer to a question I’d asked a friend two days before. I mean, yes, you have to be careful with texting about important things, because you can really misunderstand what a person is communicating. So, I read through the whole thing—my question, her answer—twice more. I shook my head, slowly. Nope, no way I was misinterpreting these words.
A couple of weeks later I found I was still pretty worked up over the whole thing, so I emailed my BFF, one of the wisest people I know, and sent her the texts so she could read them herself. Was I out of line, or did it say what I thought it said? Yes, she replied, you’re not nuts, and you didn’t mistake the meaning.
What she didn’t say was, “Wait, is this reliable? Are these really the texts that got sent? Did you modify this? Is this really from the person you named?” My BFF knew already, because she knows me, that what I sent her was trustworthy, it was authentic, unadulterated, and a true witness to the real text exchange I had actually experienced.
That’s very important. Because, if it wasn’t, if it was made up, or modified in some way, or attributed to some other person, then my friend would believe something untrue, and everything she processed from the quotes I sent her would be pure fabrication, and of no real value in terms of wise counsel. She would be basing her comments, and her recommended course of action, on fictitious material.
Which is why people ask, “Is the Bible trustworthy?” Does the Bible accurately represent what God has said and done, and how God thinks and feels, who God is?
It is a foundational question, since everything we know about God apart from God as powerful creator, comes from the Bible.
First, let’s figure out the document we call the Bible. Is it a reliable resource?
Some of what we know of Jesus’ presence and reality we know through our own subjective experience of him, for some more vivid than for others. People talk of experiencing the Holy Spirit’s guidance, illumination, enlivening and empowering. People talk about a sense of the transcendent. Some have seen Jesus with their physical eyes, spoken with him, been touched, even embraced by him, spent significant amounts of time with him. They didn’t need a Bible for that, for Jesus was there himself.
But, to know what Jesus said 2,000 years ago, to know what he did, to know about the cross and the resurrection, we look to the Bible. So, we ask, is this a reliable witness to those millennia-old events? Can I trust this document to be truthful?
None of the people I know, or know of, who have met with Jesus, received from Jesus anything like a document, or comprehensive biography, or lengthy teaching. So, it’s the Bible, or it’s nothing, for there is nothing like the Bible.
What about all those letters from the apostles? Did they really write those? Is their teaching in some way foundational (as Paul claims, in his letter to the Ephesian believers)?
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.Ephesians 2:19-20 NRSV
So, when I hear people question whether the Bible is trustworthy, that’s how I understand their question. I don’t hear them asking whether they should see the Bible as their god or Jesus as God. I don’t hear them asking whether they should enter into a relationship with their Bible, or treat their Bible like their magic 8 ball. I hear them asking if the Bible is a reliable witness and contains foundational teaching.
And, I want to say, yes, it is trustworthy, it is a reliable record of what was actually said, and what actually happened, and it contains foundational teaching we need to understand what believing Jesus, and believing in Jesus, means.
The reason I want to say yes is based really on the research and synthesis of others—notably, among those others, Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel. Here’s what I’ve come to believe after reading a good number of books and commentaries on the subject (and, obviously, I have to believe they are trustworthy sources as well):
The word “gospel” means good news in Greek. In ancient times, a biography of Jesus would have been called the gospel, or the good news, of Jesus Christ according to John, or Matthew, or Luke, or Mark.
The gospels are only four of 66 books in a larger work we call the Bible. The Bible is an old, old book, a collection written by more than 40 human authors. These writers made up all kinds of people – a farmer (Amos), a doctor (Luke), ministers (such as Ezra and James), political leaders (David, Solomon), political prisoners (Daniel, John), a musician (Asaph), a fisherman (Peter) and a tax collector (Matthew), to name just a few. The Bible writers were rich and educated, poor and not‑so‑educated; they came from a wide variety of social backgrounds. The latest books are two thousand years old. The earliest books could easily be between three and four thousand years old.
Part of understanding scripture is knowing that though humans did the writing, the Bible itself is the product of one author: God. The apostle Peter wrote,
No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of a person*, but people* spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.2 Peter 1:20-21 (NRSV, modified by me)
Later, the apostle Paul told Timothy that,
All Scripture is God‑breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.2 Timothy 3:16 (NRSV)
In some way God the Holy Spirit caused the human writers to pen these words, in their own personality and gifts, in their own culture and understanding of the times, as God inspired them with God’s own Spirit.
Because the Bible is inspired by God, it accurately represents, and reflects, God’s characteristics: the Bible is God’s special and unique revelation of God to human beings.
The Bible is consistent in that it contains a unified, consistent message. It tells one great story of the Lord’s redemption of a people for God. The agreement woven throughout all 66 books written by widely different people over the course of two or three thousand years strongly points to the whole Bible’s divine inspiration.
All together there are over 24,000 ancient copies and portions of the New Testament. Based on those numbers, it seems the works that make up the New Testament were the most frequently copied and widely circulated books that we know of in antiquity. By comparison, the next highest number of existing manuscripts for an ancient book is the Iliad by Homer, with only 643 copies.
The oldest copies of works by Homer, Caesar, Plato, Aristotle, all those famous authors, do not date from those authors’ lifetimes. Instead, these secular documents date from between 500 to up to 1,600 years after those authors died, so they are actually copies of copies of copies, with the originals long, long gone. But no scholar seriously questions any of these ancient documents’ accuracy or authenticity.
In comparison, the New Testament’s most ancient manuscripts date from within only twenty-five years of the apostles’ lifetime. Though the Bible is not just a history book, the events and people recorded in its pages are historical. As archaeologists research the people, places, and culture of Bible times, they have proven, over and over, that the Bible is accurate in its historical facts. New archeological evidence continues to confirm the accuracy of all the ancient copies we already have. In fact, scholars have verified that there is uncertainty in about only one one thousandth of the Christian Testament, and none of that tiny part affects any of the teaching. That is remarkable.
During the first 25 to 30 years after Jesus ascended there was no written gospel. People of that day routinely memorized whole books, so the disciples’ memories were well accustomed to remembering accurately. But on top of this, Jesus told the disciples the Holy Spirit would supernaturally enable them to remember everything He had taught them, and showed them, and they would be able to tell His story – and that’s what they did, beginning at Pentecost, for the next 30 years.
But as the apostles aged they began to realize that an accurate account needed to be recorded to prevent legends and myths from forming. Before, the apostles were always there to corroborate anyone’s story. But Paul had already begun to write letters to the various churches he had planted, and now was teaching and shepherding long distance. As the churches increased and the apostles aged, the need increased for consistent teaching, so the gospels began to get written down.
By 69 A.D. at the latest, the first three gospels were written and being circulated, and by 80-90 A.D. all the epistles had been written, the books that explain the teachings of Jesus found in the gospels. In 70 A.D. Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, the temple along with it, so that all sacrifices and the practice of formal Jewish religion ceased. The apostles and the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem were all scattered.
After that time false teachers began to teach that Jesus was not the promised Messiah, because of the destruction of Jerusalem, and they denied that Jesus was the Son of God. So, John wrote his gospel particularly to oppose this teaching, bringing in the accounts of eye witnesses, carefully choosing the signs he would write about, which were the key works that revealed Jesus’ divine power and glory, and words that prove Jesus’ deity.
How was the canon formed?
Christians had all along been recognizing works that were inspired by the Holy Spirit. These were, as the apostles Paul and Peter had described, “God-breathed” and were treated as scripture as soon as they were read. In fact,
From 50 A.D. to 115 A.D., students of the apostles (for example Ignatius and Polycarp) wrote their own letters which included quotes from the gospels and apostles’ epistles. By 100 A.D. all the writings of the apostles had been confirmed and were quoted as scripture. By 180 A.D. Irenaeus had listed all the books of the New Testament (save Hebrews, Philemon, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, and James) in his treatise against heresies.
The early church fathers applied five measurements, or canons, to the whole of what was being circulated at that time. The books in the New Testament had to “measure up” to these five criterion:
- Was it authoritative? In other words, was it God-breathed?
- Was it prophetic? In other words, was it written by someone recognized to be God-anointed? Did an apostle write it? For example, Matthew was an apostle, John was an apostle, Mark wrote Peter’s gospel. Peter authenticated Paul’s work as scripture in one of his letters, writing, “speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16 NRSV) which verified Luke, who wrote Paul’s gospel with Mary’s help; James was Jesus’ brother, and so on. Paul commended those believers who accepted what he wrote as scripture.
- Was it authentic? The early fathers’ policy was “When in doubt, throw it out.”
- Was it dynamic? It had to conform to the teachings of the faith as were already outlined by Jesus and the apostles.
- Was it received? It had to be widely read, accepted and used by people of faith – no private communiques, or heretofore secretly hidden and now suddenly revealed, so-called “lost” documents were allowed.
This is the exact same process the ancient Jewish theologians had used to validate the Old Testament canon.
You can trust the Bible as a resource to know what Jesus said and did, what he thought and felt, remembering that the Bible is a resource, however unique, special, and powerful. God is the source of love and life and salvation. Studying the Bible is good as long as it leads to knowledge of and relationship with God.
*The word in Greek used here is ‘anthropos’ a neutral word meaning ‘human being’ or ‘mortal.’
[Oldest fragment of the New Testament | uploaded by Daniel.baranek [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]